NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. –
New York Army Guard aviators teamed up with New York State Park Police to move a 3,900-pound steel pontoon from the Niagara River on Wednesday, May 4, before it could go over the lip of Niagara Falls 100 yards away.
It took five minutes for the CH-47F belonging to Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 126th Aviation to move the pontoon from the river off Bird Island —where it had sat for 38 months— to a parking lot on Goat Island.
A Park Police High Water Rescue Team waded into the river and attached cables from the hovering CH-47 to the pontoon so it could be hoisted out of the river.
The pontoon had broken away from the ice dam erected each winter where Lake Erie meets the Niagara River back in 2019.
The decision was made to move it this year out of concerns that it could go over the falls and crash into the “Cave of the Winds” section Bridal Veil falls, according to the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
The mission was originally planned for March 19 but was delayed due to bad weather.
Weather also played a key role in executing the mission on May 4.
Two New York Army National Guard CH-47s waited for fog, wind and rain to clear before departing from the Army Aviation Support Facility at Rochester International Airport in the afternoon.
The first aircraft conducted reconnaissance of the area for debris or obstructions. The second Chinook –named “Big Noise III” flew to the site where the pontoon was lodged next to Bird Island near the brink of the falls to do another survey.
“The pontoon has just been floating next to Bird Island since 2019 and it is one of 244 other pontoons that make up an ice boom, according to Louis Pagness, a spokesman for the New York Power Authority which erects the boom each year, so ice does not get into dam intakes.
“The pontoon broke free in a huge wind event,” he said.
The pontoon had previously been tied to a tree after a final safety inspection so it would not go over the falls and High-Water Rescue personnel placed additional ropes in place to assist with the pontoon’s removal.
Although the ice boom continued to work without the one pontoon, Pagness, said the loss of one pontoon was similar to a charm bracelet with one charm coming off.
The rest of the ice boom works as it was designed, but the recovery of the pontoon was important for the safety of the falls, he explained.
Safety was the mission’s highest priority, said Army National Guard Capt. Jonathan Peralta, Company Commander of Bravo Company.
After getting their own look at the pontoon and the river, the crew of Big Noise III —Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Hermanson, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Christopher Scott, Staff Sgt. Michael Landaur, Sgt. Tyler DeGone, and Staff Sgt. Christopher Santiago— touched down at the Goat Island parking area. They got a final briefing and mounted the sling cables that would go on the pontoon.
With preparations completed, the crew lifted off from the parking area for the short distance to recover the pontoon.
As the Army Guard pilots positioned the helicopter over the pontoon, the flight crew constantly checked all directions for anything that could be dangerous.
Hovering in place directly above the pontoon, the crew dropped down cables and members as the Park Police team waded out into the chilly, fast-moving currents of the Niagara River to attach the cables.
Wearing reflective gear and attached to a guide rope for safety, the Park Police team attached both ends of the pontoon to the cable and moved back safely to an area on Bird Island.
The lift was no sweat for the Chinook CH-47 helicopter, which has a lifting capacity of 13 tons, Peralta said.
The Chinook slowly lifted the pontoon out of the water.
Lifting the pontoon was only about a quarter of the capacity that the Chinook is able to lift, said Lt. Col. Eric Fritz, the aviation facility commander. “There’s very minimal risk, but the biggest risk was the (nearby) trees.”
Soldiers and Power Authority employees stood on the shoreline to provide feedback for obstacle avoidance.
The brief flight back to the island parking lot allowed the support personnel to appreciate the size and weight of the pontoon, Piralta said.
Back at the parking lot, the pontoon was lowered, cables dropped from the aircraft and disconnected, and the big Chinook landed next to its payload.
Now in a safer recovery location, the Power Authority will recover the pontoon by truck, thanks to the successful efforts of the Army Guard aircrews and support personnel working together, Pagnessa said.
Landaul, the crew chief for Big Noise III, said that he was proud the crew was able to help out. The same helicopter flew missions in Jalalabad, Afghanistan during the company’s deployment there in 2017, he noted.
The aircraft’s nickname, Landaul said, also has some history. It was named Big Noise III in honor of his grandfather, Sgt. 1st Class Cleon Whiting who served in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, he said.
The aircraft his grandfather crewed in the 453rd Bomb Group—in which actor Jimmy Stewart as an operations officer –was dubbed “Big Noise II,” Landaul said.